Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Ahead of ASU matchup, what is Washington State doing to plug holes in its run defense?

PULLMAN – Brennan Jackson felt flustered like he rarely has. Washington State’s edge rusher couldn’t find a way to get pressure on Wisconsin quarterback Tanner Mordecai, and as the Sept. 9 game wore on, he started to feel frustration boil inside him.

Late in the second quarter, he lined up on the inside. He couldn’t get pressure. He raised his hand to bat down a pass – but that’s when RJ Stone came through with a strip-sack, jarring the ball free. Jackson spun around, grabbed the ball and fell into the end zone for a touchdown.

Funny how fast those things flip.

Now, though, Jackson understands that play on a deeper level. As the Cougars try to end their three-game losing skid, Jackson and his edges are having trouble getting pressure, particularly last weekend in a loss to No. 9 Oregon.

“You get there and that play changes the course of the game,” Jackson said. “So don’t get frustrated, and keep working throughout the game.”

This weekend, WSU could use one of those plays – or at least more consistent pressure. As the Cougars slide, their lack of a pass rush has come into focus, as has their thinning rotation at that spot. Jackson and Stone are healthy, but injuries and health issues have plagued their position, a rash of bad luck that has rippled across the rest of WSU’s defense.

Edges Quinn Roff and Raam Stevenson will miss their team’s road test against Arizona State this weekend, head coach Jake Dickert said. With edge Lawrence Falatea out with a torn ACL he suffered during fall camp, the Cougars need something extra from their healthy edges – namely Stone and Jackson. Their depth revolves around junior Andrew Edson and true freshman Isaac Terrell, who is on the mend from a hamstring injury that sidelined him for WSU’s loss to Arizona on Oct. 14.

Never was WSU’s lack of depth at that spot more clear than in Saturday’s game. The Cougars managed just five total pressures, according to Pro Football Focus – two quarterback hits (one each from Ansel Din-Mbuh and Jackson) and three hurries (one apiece from Edson, Jackson and Stone ).

Up front and in the middle of the field, though, the Cougars’ defense is languishing. WSU has yielded 35-plus points in three of its past four games. The Cougars rank No. 9 in the Pac-12 in tackling, according to PFF, and they’ve failed to generate a turnover in each of their past two games.

So what can WSU do? Arizona State isn’t exactly coy about its offensive blueprint, which revolves around the run, so this week WSU has emphasized one thing above all: tackling.

The Sun Devils will make the Cougars pay if they don’t. ASU running back Cameron Skattebo, a transfer from FCS Sacramento State, ranks eighth in the Pac-12 with 309 total yards after contact. He may be just 5-foot-11, but at 212 pounds, he’s a back who forces multiple defenders to converge and bring him down.

“Just focus on the details part of the tackle,” said WSU cornerback Cam Lampkin, who made three tackles (and missed none) against Oregon. “We were over-running a lot of runs, overplaying a lot of the time (against Oregon). But (Tuesday in practice), we tackled a lot. We tackled well (Tuesday). We actually focused in on the details of tackling – foot, shoulders, swiping off, tagging off. This week is gonna be a big tackling week for us, because they are going to run the ball at us, despite all the weeks that we have given up runs.”

At the heart of WSU’s troubles is its run defense. The Cougars rank last in the Pac-12 in that department, per PFF, which is reflected in the numbers. They yielded 248 rushing yards to Oregon, 174 to Arizona, 181 to UCLA. Oregon churned out nearly 8 yards per rush, the largest total among those games, but Arizona and UCLA also didn’t have much issue running the ball.

To counter, the Cougars are shuffling personnel on their defensive line. They’re starting redshirt sophomore David Gusta and senior Na’im Rodman, who was coming off the bench for the first few games of the season. Now taking reps at edge is lineman Nusi Malani, usually an interior lineman. That’s presented a new challenge for coaches – to find the best spot for Malani, get the most out of him and find the best matchups for him.

His frame isn’t the issue. He’s 6-4 and 280 pounds. The Cougars just want to make sure they’re using his athleticism the best way they can.

“It’s a balance of how much he’s gonna get in there,” Dickert said. “I think he’ll have another full week there (at edge). We’ll feel more comfortable with him having a bigger base of calls. So I think it’s a little bit of that and just getting some reps.”

Or, as Jackson might add, keep working.